The Steroid Thing

Mike’s Rule #3: Human beings aren’t very good at reasoning; but we are dead awesome when it comes to rationalizing.

It’s Hall of Fame ballot time again and if any group illustrates Mike’s Rule 3 perfectly, it’s the Baseball Writers of America. You will rarely find such a pure distillation of the frailty of the human thought process. For every Joe Posnanski or Joe Sheehan, who use facts and data to inform their positions, there are five others who:

1) decide in advance what they think

2) twist the facts to suit their pre-conceived opinion.

You can see it perfectly in the debate over Jack Morris vs. Bert Blyleven. It’s possible to vote for both, for neither or for just Blyleven.

But it’s really difficult to vote for just Jack Morris. Blyleven had both better career numbers and better peak numbers and his post-season performance was a good (if not as notable). But there are a slew of writers who will, on the one hand, tell you that Blyleven was never the best pitcher in baseball, that he never won a Cy Young Award, that he was just a “compiler” of stats (as if there’s something wrong with that) — and then, on the other hand, will conveniently forget that those arguments apply doubly-so to Morris.

That’s difficult to wrap your mind around until you understand that they are not reasoning, they are rationalizing. As Bill James observed long ago, many HOF voters and agitators care more about individuals than arguments. The Blyleven-no, Morris-yes writers don’t care about arguments … they care about Jack Morris. And whatever argument they have to use to make their case, they’ll use it, consistency and reason be damned.

But nowhere does rationalizing become more painful and more odious than the debate over steroids and whether to put players from the steroid era into the HOF. Over the years I’ve laid out my thought on this (here, here, here). There are basically three options when it comes to voting on players from the Steroid Era:

Option 1 – Vote for No One. This has the advantage of being clear and consistent. It also has the advantage of creating a very high horse from which the media can make up for their massive failure to uncover the scandal as it was going on (Wilstein exempted). The disadvantage is that it throws the innocent in with the guilty and means a very empty hall.

While this option is reasonable, I don’t think its viable for one big reason — it rewards cheaters from earlier eras. Even leaving out sign stealing, corked bats and segregation, we know that PEDS long pre-date Mark McGwire. Baseball players chomped amphetamines for decades. HOF pitcher Pud Galvin drank a concoction with monkey testosterone. And steroids specifically have been around for several decades. I think it’s highly likely we will find out, in the near future, that someone already in the HOF used steroids. And when that happens, option 1 collapses.

Option 2 – Innocent Until Proven Guilty In this option, the writers admit anyone who has not been implicated in or confessed to PED use. So guys like Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, etc. would be out while guys like Maddux, Johnson and Thome would be in. This has the advantage of requiring evidence of cheating before punishment is meted out.

But I don’t think this option is viable either. First, it rewards players for not getting caught and makes it nearly impossible for players to be honest about what they did and didn’t do. Indeed, Mark McGwire has gotten caught in a catch-22 where the writers clamored for him to talk, then turned on him when he did. Both his silence and his admission were seen as incriminating. Innocent until proven guilty encourages players to lie and cover up.

Even worse, it opens the door to smear, innuendo and statistical malpractice. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in this year’s debate over the candidacy of Jeff Bagwell. You can read Peter Gammons and Joe Posnanski on why Bagwell should be an absolute lock Hall of Famer. And then, you can read Jeff Pearlman‘s ridiculous smear job. Pearlman asserts that Bagwell should be thrown in with the guilty since (a) he got bigger as he got older (see here on how little this means — check out Puckett specifically); and (b) he had “guilty knowledge” — i.e., he didn’t speak out about it.

The latter point was the impetus behind Christina Kahrl’s diatribe on media arrogance and I agree with much of what she says. The guilty knowledge argument not only ignores that baseball culture is extremely hard on those who rat on team-mates (see Bouton, Jim), it makes the media the focus of the debate. That may be gratifying to their tiny media egos, but it’s terrible for the debate.

And ultimately the innocent-until-proven-guilty argument founders on the same rocks as strategy (1): eventually we will find out that a steroid user is in the Hall. And since the door into the Hall only goes one way, he’ll stay there, a constant reminder to the players to keep their mouths shut.

(As self-indulgent as Pearlman’s article is, Perrotto’s article is equally self-effacing. He admits to not asking the hard questions and acknowledges that this makes him uncomfortable being judge and jury for the players. It’s one of the most refreshing things I’ve read this week.)

Option 3 – Curve the Era In this option, we simply set a higher bar for players from the Steroid Era, especially when it comes to hitting for power. 500 home runs ceases to be an automatic admission, high slugging percentages weigh less. We only take the best players from the era. In this scenario, known steroid can use can be used as a factor in judging borderline candidates (the HOF voting instructions include a character clause). But it’s not a determining factor.

In the end, this is the option I favor. For one thing, it acknowledges that the Steroid Era was about more than steroids. The power explosion of the late 90′s was a result of many factors, including smaller ballparks, smaller strike zones, more elastic balls and players standing on the plate to drive outside pitches. In fact, it’s not clear at all that steroids had that big an impact. As Joe Sheehan has pointed out relentlessly, many of those who tested positive for PEDs were not power hitters at all, but fringe players and pitchers. The biggest impact of steroids may have been keeping players on the field (for a while, at least).

Another advantage is the acknowledgment that we will never know, with absolute certainty, who used and who didn’t and what impact it had on their performance. The best way to deal with that uncertainty is to let it be, not try to slice and dice it based on rumors, gut feelings and rookie baseball card pictures.

Finally, one of the defining elements of the Steroid Era, as I noted before, was the complicity of the league, the teams, the media and the fans. As homers soared out of ballparks, no one asked the tough questions, no one cried “foul!”, no one wanted to hear the whispers. We created an environment in which PED use was, if technically illegal, still tolerated and even tacitly encouraged. To block players from the Hall because of steroid use — real or imagined — is to put the onus entirely on them.

Granted, they are the ones who stuck needles in their bodies. But they did it because everyone else looked the other way. They did it because, as Buck O’Neil said, they could.

The only real disadvantage of option (3) is it throws in the innocent with the guilty. If a clean player hit 400 homers, he sits out of the Hall while a dirty player who hit 500 gets in. Furthermore, it encourages future cheating for just that reason — that a small extra advantage could be the difference between stardom and immortality.

I’m not entirely comfortable with that. But in the end, there is no perfect solution and the “curve the era” option, for me, has the best combination of trade-offs (especially since I think the impact of PEDs on the game was and is overstated). As with most human endeavors, we simply need to do the best we can. And curving the era seems the best we can hope do with the information we have.

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As for tomorrow’s ballot … I expect Alomar and Blyleven to get in. I expect Morris and Larkin and possibly Lee Smith to surge ahead, possibly getting elected in 2012. I expect Edgar Martinez and Jeff Bagwell to both poll in the 30′s or 40′s. Everyone else will poll in the 20′s or lower, including Raines, Trammell and McGwire, who deserve better. Walker, Palmeiro, John Franco and Kevin Brown will stay on the ballot, but many of the other first-timers will go quietly.

But the real story is coming two years from now. For many of the players on the ballot, they need to get elected by 2012 or they won’t get elected at all. Starting in 2013, there will be a slew of massively-qualified guys hitting the ballot. For my money, we will see six definite HOFers in 2013 (Bonds, Clemens, Biggio, Schilling, Sosa and Piazza), five more in 2014 (Glavine, Kent, Maddux, Mussina and Thomas), three more in 2015 (Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz) and at least one already in 2016 (Griffey).

It’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens with such a crowded ballots, especially as a number of those guys are going to struggle to make it due to steroid allegations (Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Piazza) or writer ignorance (Biggio, Kent). The BBWAA has not elected more than two players in a year since 1999. The last time they elected four players was 1955. They not elected five since the first election in 1936.

We may be in for a calamity like we did in the 1940′s and 1950′s, when there simply too many qualified candidates for anyone to command enough votes to get in. The Hall had to respond with run-off elections and I suspect they will end up having to do the same about 2016.

Expect a long backlog that drag outs until at least 2020, followed by the Veteran’s Committee picking up the stragglers like McGwire, Martinez and Raines, who simply got crowded off of the platform.

Update: Tom Verducci disappoints me by throwing in with the “I know a steroid user when I see one” crowd. He even quotes Andre Dawson … since no one in Dawson’s era used PEDs … as the players having “chosen their legacy”.

What sanctimonious claptrap. The players did not choose their legacy — baseball did by not taking the issue seriously until an unpopular player started breaking records. The players were the largest part of that, obviously. But they played in an environment in which the only negative impact of steroid use was long term health risk — something many would trade for success. What Verducci and others are trying to apply is an ex post facto judgement. They looked the other way when steroid use was happening. Now that it blew up in their faces, they suddenly want to start issuing retroactive penalties.

Verducci even dusts off the criticism of McGwire and Bagwell for claiming that steroids did not make their careers. While I think the players are wrong to claim this, it puts the players into yet another BBWAA Catch-22: we will not forgive you until you admit that your entire career was a fraud. After which confession, of course — as they did with McGwire, as they did with Pete Rose — they will turn their backs again and say, “Well, I definitely can’t vote for him now.”

In the end, what the BBWAA wants is not consistency, justice or logic. What they want is for the players to grovel to them, to suck up to them, to kiss their feet, to show what they think is requisite amount of contrition. This was the chief reason the narrative on steroids changed when Barry Bonds started using them — because he was famously hostile to certain members of the press (although that too involved revisionist history — they elide the part of the infamous “back off or I’ll snap” incident where they were trampling his kid).

I see every reason to hold players accountable for what they did. But I see no reason to let everyone else off the hook. And I see no reason why players should have to crawl and grovel to a bunch of people who continually forget that voting for the HOF is a privilege, not a right.

In the end, they are going to end up with egg on their faces when it turns out that an existing HOFer was a steroid user. And their self-righteousness and preening will be revealed for exactly what it is.

Update: Jayson Stark comes through, as he usually does. Stark is one of those writers, like Gammons and Verducci, who I’ve watched evolve and change over the last 15 years. The man thinks, which is rare.

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